Tag Archives: La Torrecchia

White gardens for the new age

I have only seen the white garden at Sissinghurst once and, to be honest, it did not inspire me at the time. I need to go and have a second look but certainly leading English landscape designer, Dan Pearson’s comments on white gardens in general and Sissinghurst in particular, rang true for me. “Too many whites together in one space”, he wrote. Vita Sackville West called it her ‘grey, green and white garden’. Maybe over the years, more attention had been given to the white flowers at the expense of grey and green tones?  Or maybe it was just the sheer size of it and the tight constraint of all those neatly clipped hedges and edgers that did not inspire me. And the memories of all the customers I met in the trendy nineties, mostly of the Ladies Who Lunch brigade, buying plants for their white gardens. There must have been an awful lot of such gardens going into aspirational New Zealand real estate back then.

Sissinghurst white garden from the tower on our one and only visit in 2009

I opened my heart more to the contemporary white gardens we saw on our recent trip.  The Sissinghurst model is not the only style and it is now an historic garden from a different era. Too often the reinterpretations of Sissinghurst White can be stiff and contrived, relying mostly on clipping and rigid shrubs. Such style is not ‘timeless’. The original is historic. The copies and reinterpretations are more likely to be ‘dated’.

The white entrance to the functions barn at Bury Court. Eagle-eyed purists may note the touch of pink in Lilium regale

Bury Court,  south of London had a big wedding market – and the best setup I have ever seen to accommodate weddings and functions without compromising the essentially private nature of the garden and its residence. It was entirely appropriate that the small garden at the entry to the functions centre (a converted barn of some antiquity and great style) be white. So too were there white feature plants in strategic places which allowed for photos, but these were integrated in wider contexts of colour. The emphasis at Bury Court was on contemporary plantings of frothy or bold  perennials and grasses.

The white avenue of Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’ at Le Jardin Plume in Normandy was an ephemeral affair – a good photo opportunity, Mark calls such plantings. Spectacular, the essence of simplicity and of brief duration, but no less charming for that on the day.


The white border at Parham

Parham House had a white border, too. Here the context was one of colour controlled, contemporary, herbaceous borders. These were generous borders, both wide and long, one in blues and another in yellows while others were mixes of hot colours. There was also rather a lot of white statuary. Similar to the smaller white garden at Bury Court, Parham’s white border is a summer feature of voluminous perennials – soft, full and lush.


Simplicity at La Torrecchia

La Torrecchia, near the more famous Ninfa Gardens south of Rome, was an early Dan Pearson garden and showed a restrained use of white plants. The artfully simple self-seeding plants in the full light at the back of the villa were mostly white or grey and a delightful example of understated charm. I liked even more that the pale blue chicory was allowed to remain. The white purist would have pulled it out for failing to conform to the colour requirement but it added to the simple charm. There were plenty of white flowering plants used at La Torrecchia but not in the formal, contained style of Sissinghurst. Rather, they were spaced to lead the eye through the garden – plants used as markers for garden wayfarers.

Dare we mention that the white rose opens from yellow buds? Purity in white is rare

The pinnacle in my book is the advanced gardening skills that see the colour composition change over the seasons. We looked at Beech Grove Gardens at the Barbican in London in June (the work of Professor Nigel Dunnett and his team) when yellow phlomis, tawny kniphofia (red hot pokers) and Verbena bonariense were dominant. I was astonished to see photos of the same garden in the first week of September when it was largely white with Japanese anemones, the white wood aster (A. divaricatus) and the white barked birch trees (betulas).  It was a dramatic change to what we saw in early summer and an interesting design decision to turn a cool autumn garden to white. When you think about it, the light levels start to lower dramatically in autumn in that northerly climate, so a white autumn garden possibly shines even more.

The first section of the auratum lily border gets planted and mulched

I have never coveted a white garden myself. I have, however, recently planted a new border. Most of it is beautiful, bold auratum lilies of Mark’s raising – pushing towards 40 metres of them so that took a whole lot of bulbs. The lilies are in many shades of pinks, whites and deep carmine reds. But because they will all flower at the same time, I have added white umbellifers to flower either side of their blooming season. White umbellifers have been a hot fashion item in UK gardens for at least the last decade and show no signs of abating popularity. Think cow parsley and carrots – give or take. So far I have only put in two different ones and I still need a tall one to tower above. Plus any other white umbellifers that come my way. I just want them to seed down and gently fill the space around the lily stems. They will be my white garden.

Umbellifers! Still at peak popularity

This particular column was started as my contribution to the January issue of NZ Gardener magazine (yes, contributors are required to work some months in advance). With recent events culminating in my resignation this week, I have adapted it and decided to post it to follow on from last weekend’s work on white flowers






Postcards of Italy

The reflecting pool at La Torrecchia

While the visit to Ninfa was the reason that took us to the area around Latina, south of Rome, we were also fortunate to get to the nearby garden of La Torrecchia. It, too, is created around the ruins of a medieval village, though a smaller one than Ninfa. It is a much more recent garden, dating back to 1991, and it remains gardening on a private, domestic scale. Much of the design can be attributed to the English landscaper, Dan Pearson, whose style interests us a great deal. While this is early Pearson (dating back almost 25 years now), the reflecting pool above is his work. Surrounded by a riot of self-sown seedlings, it was a delight.

The cork oak, Quercus suber

In New Zealand, it is rare to see a wine bottle with a cork these days and most of those will be plastic. This is the land of the stelvin screw top closure. But I give you the curious cork oak, Quercus suber. This fine specimen is in the garden of La Torrecchia. The switch to screw tops has done much to relieve the pressure on these trees which had, apparently resulted in too many inferior corks. It is a curious fact that many restaurants here still pour a mouthful of wine to be sampled by the patron when, as I understand it, this tradition came about because of wine being tainted by the original cork.

The cork dog kennel stood by the gardener’s cottage at La Torrecchia. Whether a resident dog lives in it remains a mystery but I can tell you that we saw a big as, bigly even, huge hornet fly into the cork. We don’t have hornets at home, let alone these scary specimens. If I was a dog, I would be refusing to share my quarters with a hornet like that.

It is always a slightly strange feeling to encounter one of our plants across the world so I made Mark pose by the specimen of Magnolia Atlas in La Torrecchia. This one was bred by his father, Felix, and it felt very personal that there was a little bit of Tikorangi even in an Italian garden.

Mark beside Atlas at La Torrecchia

Kiwi fruit (actinidia) may have originated in China but we pretty much claim them as our own in NZ. And the commercial product now bears little resemblance to the wild species in their native habitat. It is one of our horticultural stars and a linchpin of our economy. So we were more than a little surprised to see the extent of kiwifruit plantings in Italy. Apparently it is now greater than in this country and a fair acreage of it was in the area around Cisterna di Latina. It is all irrigated which may prove interesting in the future if water becomes an issue.

Vast kiwi fruit plantations in Italy

At the local supermarket in Tivoli, we saw fruit being sold. So I can tell you that the green kiwifruit imported from Chile retailed at 2.99 euros a kilo (Haywards variety). The Zespri Green variety grown in Italy retailed at 4.99 euros a kilo while Zespri Gold sourced from New Zealand was 5.99 euros a kilo (which is a little over $9NZ a kilo). We did not buy any, preferring the big beautiful cherries we could buy at the morning market in Tivoli for a little less than that price.


Gardening in the old town of Tivoli

We used Air BnB on line to book most of our accommodation and this proved a huge success for us. In Tivoli, we had a charming one bedroomed, full self-contained apartment with a large garden, right in the heart of the old town.  All this for just over $70 a night which seemed astonishingly good value to us. Just down the road from us was this apartment which clearly lacked any outdoor space so the owner could only garden around her door. I always find the urge to grow plants in the most constrained circumstances affirming. At the same time, I felt a twinge of shame and sadness that I doubt such a publicly exposed private garden would even survive in the country I call home. It is more likely that the pots would be smashed and the plants vandalised within days. Or stolen. Sometimes I wonder how civilised we really are.

I give you the inquisitive man to whom I am married. He does like to look closely. In this case, he was interested in the construction of the bamboo door to the tool shed that he spotted at Ninfa. The bamboo will have been harvested from their own plantations in the garden and are a creative solution to crafting a door to fit a non-standard entry which likely dates back to the Middle Ages when the buildings of this town were largely constructed. I hasten to add, the door was left open. Mark may inspect but does not usually pry.

The bamboo grove at Ninfa, not unlike our own one.

Looking back at the entrance way to La Torrecchia, also built around the ruins of a small medieval village